Guests: Ron Brownstein, Michael J. Gerson
TIM RUSSERT, HOST: Welcome again. In the heat of the 2008 presidential race we talk to two authors who have stepped back to examine our political process—Ron Brownstein, his book, “The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America”; and Michael J. Gerson, “Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals and Why They Deserve to Fail if They Don’t.”
They are both with us.
RON BROWNSTEIN, AUTHOR, “THE SECOND CIVIL WAR”: Thank you. Glad to be here.
MICHAEL J. GERSON, AUTHOR, “HEROIC CONSERVATISM”: Good to be here.
ROBERTS: Ron, “The Second Civil War.” Is it that bad?
BROWNSTEIN: No. I think we are in the most partisan period we’ve seen in American life really since the beginning of the 20th century.
You know, you look at the country today, and I think it’s hard to make the case—obviously, we have differences. We have differences about Iraq, we have differences about the role of government, we have differences about social issues. But I think it’s hard to make the case that the country itself is more passionately and violently divided than it was in the 1960s, much less the 1890s or the 1860s.
I think what’s unusual now is the political system is more divided than the country. The political system works in a way that accentuates our differences rather than fulfilling its historic, I think, and best function of narrowing them and finding a consensus around which America can move forward. So, in that sense, yes, I think that we are in a period where—as Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for George Bush in 2004 calls it, hyperpartisanship is impeding us from making progress on progress that people care about.
RUSSERT: Do you think the parties are more polarizing than people actually are in their communities?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think what’s happened is the absolute level of disagreement in a society is a somewhat amorphous concept and difficult to measure. But I think what’s happened—and I don’t think it’s really higher than it has—there aren’t suddenly a vast number of ideologues on the left and the right in the electorate by any measure, but really what’s happened is sort of the spine of the story that I tell in the book, is we’ve gone through a generation-long process that I call the great sorting out in which each party’s coalition has become much more uniform and homogenous.
We’ve seen kind of an exodus of conservatives out of the Democratic Party since the 1960s, an exodus of liberals and, to some extent, moderates who used to vote Republican out of the Republican Party. That’s been reflected in who they send to Washington.
So even though the absolute level of disagreement in a society may not be any greater than it has been at other times, it’s organized in a way where one side of each argument dominates each party and thus makes it tougher for us to come together around solutions that I think most Americans would still support. I think most Americans intuitively understand that we can’t solve our problems, whether it’s health care, energy, immigration, entitlements, much less national security, by accepting solely, only ideas that are acceptable to one side or the other. I don’t think that people—I think most people understand that is not a way forward, and we see it, I think, in the polls showing the intense level of dissatisfaction with Washington and the way things are going in the country.
RUSSERT: Michael Gerson, what’s heroic conservatism?
GERSON: Heroic conservatism is a type of conservatism that takes human dignity seriously at home and abroad. You know, I’m an economic conservative who believes you can also as a conservative support aid to Africa and a hopeful role of America in the world. I’m a social conservative that believes that America has to confront doable problems that concern race and poverty. I think you can learn some of the foreign policy lessons, the difficult ones from the last few years which I talk about in the book, and still believe in a hopeful humanitarian role in the world.
So, you know, I agree with Ron. I think we’ve had a polarized politics that’s been oriented towards people’s interests, towards their resentments. And I think it’s possible—and I argue it’s possible—to have the politics that’s oriented towards people’s aspirations.
RUSSERT: You write about Iraq and you talk about learning the right lessons from Iraq, not learning the wrong lessons.
Tell me about that.
GERSON: Yes, I go through and I—you know, the book’s not a tell-all, but it’s an honest book looking at the various stages of the Iraq conflict and what we learned and what we didn’t learn. The assumption that we could take the top off of Iraqi society, the pyramid, that the rest of society would remain intact and somehow the situation would be manageable, that we could leave quickly. The theory of liberate and leave. But I also argue that you need to learn those difficult lessons.
But American increasingly faces threats in the world that come from hopeless parts of the world with governments that can’t control their borders, and that we have a direct national interest in engaging in hopeful ways to promote development, to fight disease, to promote democracy, the rule of law, women’s rights, a variety of issues. These things are not just humanitarian enterprises, they’re national security necessities.
So we can’t over-learn the lesson of Iraq, that the world is somehow too complicated for us to, you know, engage in hopeful activity. So I try to make the case that it’s possible to be realistic about the challenges we face and still idealistic about America’s role in the world.
RUSSERT: Do you think the war in Iraq opened up fault lines between the parties?
BROWNSTEIN: I think it widened them, clearly. I think the—look, I think President Bush, I think, has had a very distinctive leadership style.
I argue in the book that he was, I believe, the first president in our period who believed that he could profit from this intense division and build a governing and legislative strategy focusing much more on unifying Republicans than reaching out to voters outside of his coalition. And I think the way the Iraq war unfolded really reflected that and ultimately did become a source of great division.
There really, I think, was very little effort at any point to bring in those dissenting voices from outside the coalition, outside of his core coalition, to offer, I think, meaningful input on how to move forward at a point when there were still Democrats who had supported the initial decision and were there. I think there was—there was very little effort to sort of reach beyond those in the White House, and so I think that, yes, clearly Iraq is at the root of a lot of the passion in today’s politics on both sides, but it is not, by any means—it’s not by any means sort of the source of the division that we have, but I think it has accelerated it, yes.
GERSON: I agree with much of that. I saw how the relationship with the press in the aftermath of Iraq and not finding weapons of mass destruction and other things fractured. How the relationship with congressional leaders in the other party fractured.
I think there were faults on both sides. But I don’t think you should also underestimate the fact that the president achieved, you know, prescription drug benefit in Medicare with bipartisan support. Now over 20 million Americans getting prescriptive drug benefits.
You know, national education reform for the first time in decades. It’s improving minority test scores.
You know, an AIDS program that’s going to have two million people on treatment, a malaria program that’s going to have hundreds of thousands of children saved. There were some...
GERSON: ... in this context. But I agree that things soured significantly in the context of a divisive war.
BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I mean—and we’re probably going to talk about sort of Bush’s role in all of this at some level, so maybe we’ll just jump in a little bit now. There were clearly some areas where Bush, building on the 2000 campaign where he talked himself—called himself a different kind of Republican, which was a clear echo of Bill Clinton’s “different kind of Democrat,” there were some areas where he did try to reach out to Democrats, and you’ve listed them.
Education I think was the most important. Prescription drug to some extent, although the way the final bill turned out, it lost in a way that ultimately the Democrats—but by and large, Michael, I think that they were very—this White House was very comfortable operating in a 51-49 environment. On most issues, I think, the clear preference was to move—one of your colleagues once said to me this is not designed to be a 55 percent presidency. This is a presidency designed to move as much of what we believe into law while holding 50 plus one of the country and the Congress.
And I think they proved that in a variety of ways, whether it was the electoral strategy in 2004, the legislative strategy on a variety of issues. And ultimately, I think the president was willing to accept intense division as the price for moving the country in the direction he wanted to go, and in many ways may have seen that division as proof that he was taking hard choices and doing difficult things.
RUSSERT: I’m going to give you a chance to respond. We’ve got to take a quick break.
We’re talking to Ron Brownstein. His new book, “The Second Civil War.” Michael Gerson, Heroic Conservatism.”
Two men with strong feelings about our political process and the Bush presidency.
We’ll be right back.
RUSSERT: And we’re back talking to Michael Gerson, “Heroic Conservatism.”
George Bush came to Washington saying he was a uniter, not a divider. Did he succeed?
GERSON: Well, as I said, I think he succeeded on some issues, particularly early. I think the context of the war has overshadowed many of those accomplishments. It hasn’t eliminated them.
You know, I think you still need to be realistic that there were some significant achievements. But I don’t disagree with the overarching theory that American politics is deeply divided, and not just by war.
I talk about in the book about how we have increasingly one religious party and one secular party. We’re secularists of one of the largest components of the Democratic coalition and we’re religious conservatives of one of the largest coalitions of the Republican coalition.
RUSSERT: That’s an important point, Michael. If you look at the data in the exit polls from the 2004 presidential election and the 2000 presidential election, those Americans who go to church services at least once a week voted for the Republican by a margin of 2-1.
RUSSERT: Those who never go to church services voted overwhelmingly 2-1 for the Democratic candidate.
It doesn’t mean there are not people of faith in each party, but...
GERSON: Well, I think it’s actually think it’s a dangerous social trend. It takes every debate and turns it into a culture war debate no matter even if it doesn’t apply in a certain way.
I would think it would be good for both parties to effectively do outreach to religious voters on the issues that they care about, maybe different parts of the perspective. But—so I think that is a genuine problem.
BROWNSTEIN: And the disparity is even really larger than that. If you look among white voters to—and you segment out the tendency of African-Americans to vote Democratic, people who attend church once a week or more voted four to one for Bush over Gore. I mean, at just extraordinary levels.
One of the things—you know, I described a moment ago this idea of a great sorting out in which the electorate—if you go back and you look in the ‘50s and ‘60s when we had a more consensual politics in Washington, a system with many flaws, many issues are kept off the table, most importantly waited far too long to confront state-sponsored segregation, but, nonetheless, a system in which both parties took more account of the views of the others on a more consistent basis than we do now, there was an electoral underpinning of that. And each party had a coalition that sprawled across the center. And in the sorting out, each party has become much more homogenous.
Well, part of that has been this cultural sorting out that Mike referred to. And, in fact, I would argue that one of the principal reasons we’ve had this sorting out is because of the rise of foreign policy and social policy issues—Vietnam, civil rights, abortion, gay rights, crime, welfare in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And if you look historically, the religious attendance gap that you talked about, the marriage gap, which is an enormous difference -- married voters tend to vote more Republican, single voters tend to vote more Democrat—the gender gap—the tendency of women to vote more Democratic than men, or men vote more Republican than women—all of these emerged really in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
They were not part of our politics for Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. The emergence of sort of these non-economic disputes has created two parties that are fundamentally different not only in their views on the political process, but in the priorities they express in their own lives. And that does make it tougher for us to come together to have the country segmented in that way.
GERSON: Well, let me tell you one hopeful thing though that I talk about in the book. In one of the most polarized periods of modern political history, I actually found when I worked at the White House on some issues some odd coalitions. Maybe some emerging issues that transcend some of those boundaries, whether it was AIDS or human trafficking or, you know, various humanitarian issues abroad, malaria.
Now, I care about those issues as a foreign policy matter, but I also found them hopeful on the front of working with Bono, working with the Gates foundation, working with a lot of liberal—traditional liberal human rights groups on issues like Darfur and Sudan. Now, those are international issues, but it was one thing that I found quite hopeful.
And also a reflection of some change in priorities among religious conservatives. You know, I think that the model of engagement of the religious right that we saw in the 1980s is fragmenting, which we’re seeing in our political system.
Evangelicals, in particular, increasingly interested in Africa issues and social justice issues. Not because they’ve abandoned some of these social concerns—they’re not any more pro-choice in any evidence that I’ve seen, but they have a broader—an increasing range of social concerns.
That’s more of a tendency than a movement right now. But it could be the basis of some political agreement.
RUSSERT: A difference between the politics of the late Jerry Falwell and someone like Rick Warren.
GERSON: I think that that’s a large difference.
When I talk with young Evangelicals at Harvard or at Wheaton, where I attended out in Chicago, and ask them, “Who’s your model? Who’s your hero when it comes to social engagement?” The answer you most often get are either Rick Warren or Bono, and that’s a shift from previous models.
There’s a desire for a more positive, aspirational kind of tone here. I don’t think it’s just Evangelicals.
BROWNSTEIN: No, I agree.
GERSON: I think that there’s a significant portion of the public that’s looking for a kind of—a politics that is moral but not judgmental, a politics that is aspirational. And I’m—my argument in the book is trying to define a kind of conservatism that can accommodate that, that can appeal to these broader aspirations of Americans and not kind of, you know, be a politics of division.
RUSSERT: But is it possible within the conservative movement to find common ground on some of the more contentious issues like abortion, like gay rights, like stem-cell research?
GERSON: Well, I think there’s some progress in those areas about promoting alternatives to abortion, interesting ideas about promoting adoption, other things. I don’t think those issues are hopeless. And promoting family, which is important economic—mobility and stability, those things it can have.
But I think maybe we’re going to find not just agreement on those issues, but maybe some broader issues about race and poverty, about America’s role in the world that transcends some of those issues.
BROWNSTEIN: That’s the way on positions Rudy Giuliani is much by necessity perhaps as conviction, talking about giving states more leeway to go in their own direction on many of these questions. Abortion perhaps being the one that’s a bridge too far on that. But on gun control, gay rights, some of the issues that divided us, maybe Montana can come to a different solution than California as a way of acknowledging the diversity of the country and not try to force us all into...
GERSON: And that, by the way, was one of the problems with Roe v. Wade, which took an issue that was moving in a certain direction America. California, other states had moved in a certain direction.
We were going to have a diverse national approach. And imposed a national solution, caused a major counter-reaction. We took it out of the realm of politics and embittered a lot of Americans.
BROWNSTEIN: And that may be true, but the problem is now, if you went back in the other direction and you undid the national solution, you’d basically precipitate—civil war would be a kind word for what you would see in many of these -- many of these states.
RUSSERT: Some states allowing abortion, others not allowing. People...
BROWNSTEIN: But in all of them, absolute warfare over that decision, which I think would be revisited and revisited and revisited. It would dominate our politics for many years.
GERSON: But at least it would be a democratic outcome. And that, ultimately, in the long term, I think, has a way of taming democratic differences, when you have to come to a democratic consensus, when you have to accommodate the views of other people, instead of judicial fiat, which I think has been a force that’s encouraged this kind of division in America.
RUSSERT: Another quick break.
Michael Gerson and Ron Brownstein are the authors and our guests.
We’ll be right back.
RUSSERT: And we are back.
Ron Brownstein, you talk about in “The Second Civil War” the age of bargaining. And I was reminded of my dad as I read it, someone who went through World War II and came home and witnessed a politics where people had this common experience with World War II—the eighth rated military, best in the world, came together and energized and galvanized a nation—Jimmy Doolittle and Rosie the Riverter, and said we have a common mission, we can achieve this. And that seemed to infuse our politics.
BROWNSTEIN: It was—there was kind of—there were clearly overarching social impetus for the kind of politics we saw, what I call the age of bargaining. You know, the period really from World War II through the early to mid 1960s in which both parties tended to work together more than we saw them do before or since.
In many ways, I would argue, the beginning of the 20th century was a period much like our own. I call it the age of partisan armies.
But in the age of bargaining, first of all, World War II was an experience in which all of society was mobilized. And there was that sort of common experience of working together, certainly across party lines.
Franklin Roosevelt, after some initial resistance, did bring Republicans in Congress in, for example, for the planning of the U.N. Harry Truman went to extraordinary lengths in the years immediately after World War II to involve Arthur Vandenberg and other Senate Republicans in the design of the containment and his foreign policy.
You know, he appointed John Foster Dulles, who was Tom Dewey’s chief foreign policy adviser in 1948 and not the easiest person in the world to get along with, he appointed him as a special adviser to the State Department, where he served as the principal negotiator, one of the principal negotiators on the peace treaty with Japan. I mean, that would be equivalent to George Bush naming Madeleine Albright or Richard Holbrooke as his special envoy to the Middle East.
You know, there was also, I think, in that period that came out of World War II something of a distrust of grand ideological schemes that seemed to—that tried to explain all human behavior. After—after dealing with fascism and obviously the threat of the confrontation of Stalin and communism, there was kind of a pragmatic impulse in many of the leaders at that time. But beneath all that, Tim, there was also an electoral incentive.
The fact was that one of the reasons there was so much negotiation in that period was because no one had a reliable majority in Congress. This was the era people talked about four-party politics. You know, liberal-to-moderate Democrats, conservative Democrats from the South, the moderate Republicans from each coast, and then the more conservative old guard Republicans, and they operated almost, I describe, in like planets who would pass each other in a kind of irregular orbit, come together and quickly move apart.
Dwight Eisenhower had to rely on Lyndon Johnson to protect him from Republicans in the Senate, conservatives who opposed his foreign policy. And John Kennedy needed votes from moderate Democrats to move forward initiatives that—moderate Republicans to move forward initiatives southern Democrats didn’t want. The structure of the system, as well as the ethos that you describe, really made for a very different politics than we’ve seen since and, to a large extent, even before.
RUSSERT: Civil rights had a profound impact on our politics and on our political parties. You began to see the Democratic Party fracture, those southern conservative Democrats moving away.
Was that a key moment for the emergence of the Republican Party and were there some negative aspects associated with it?
GERSON: No. I agree with that. I think you did see a southern strategy that took advantage of resentments and trends. But actually, George Bush represented a break from that in a lot of ways.
If you look the way that he campaigned on issues of race, inclusion, poverty, other issues in the year 2000, I think that he actually took a slightly different approach on these issues. And you know, I also make an argument in the book that Democrats have unlearned some of the lessons of the civil rights movement—the role of religion and social reform.
They, through the ‘70s and ‘80s, became deeply suspicious of the role of religion in our common life. Actually not just Republicans courting religious voters, but Democrats actively alienating them.
I tell the personal story in the book the first president I liked was Jimmy Carter in a lot of ways. You know, he was an outspoken Evangelical, moral foreign policy, human rights, other things. If you look at the progression of the Democratic Party, turning against many of these trends and ideals, of the role of religion in our common life, the role of religion in social reform.
So I think that the civil rights tradition—and certainly there were some problems, and Republicans reacting against that, taking advantage of it. But it was also in some ways a Democratic rejection of some of their great traditions.
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think—sorry.
RUSSERT: I’m going to wait until the next break, get you to respond to it, Ron, because it’s a very important point.
We’re talking to Ron Brownstein. His book, “The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America.” Michael Gerson, “Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals and Why They Deserve to Fail if They Don’t.”
A lot more with our authors right after this.
RUSSERT: And we’re back talking about politics in America, trying to find out exactly what is going on in our country, talk about the divide that exists between the parties and between different segments of our society.
Ron Brownstein, his new book is “The Second Civil War.” Michael Gerson, his is “Heroic Conservatism.”
We were talking about race, and you wanted to...
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I was going to say that, you know, I think in my book I am critical of President Bush on the grounds that I think he has been too comfortable accepting division as the price of moving forward on the issues that he thinks is important, too comfortable operating, as someone said, as president of half of America. But race is the great exception.
I think from the very beginning of his career in Texas, and certainly as a national figure, he shows—he views avoiding division on issues relating to race, whether it’s illegal immigration, affirmative action, as a positive good in a way that he does not on other issues. I think it is quite important to him.
I talked about it, for example, when we moved into the immigration debate in 2006. And remember he said to everyone, be careful of your language. Do not—we shouldn’t be talking in a way that pits one groups against another. I don’t think that’s his approach on many other domestic and foreign policy issues, but I think that on race and anything (INAUDIBLE) he’s been very consistent in seeing himself as someone who has a responsibility to help bring the country together.
The other point though I would make about Mike’s comment about religion, there’s no doubt that each coalition is sorted out on these cultural lines. But, you know, secular voters are not as large a share of the Democratic coalition as devoutly religious voters are of the Republican coalition, just as a matter of fact and size. And, in fact, the Democratic coalition is more evenly balanced between those who tend to be religiously devout and those who are not, which I think gives them an incentive to try to find ways to speak to a broader audience.
One of the challenges I think for the—one of the strengths of the Republican Party under—that we saw under Bush is it is a more homogenous coalition than the Democrats. They’re able to achieve a greater level of unity. It’s been a great frustration of many of these, you know, grassroots Democratic activists who wonder why Democrats can’t come together in the same way.
Well, the reality is the Republican Party, 80 percent of Republicans now call themselves conservatives. Only 50 percent of Democrats call themselves liberals. And you see that reflected in who they send to Washington as well.
There are only five Republican senators from the 18 states that voted against Bush both times. There are 18 Democratic senators from the 29 states that voted for him both times.
All these ways the Democratic coalition is more diverse. The cost of that is it’s harder for them to unify behind a common program. The advantage of it is I think that it does require them to be more attuned to a broader range of viewpoints.
And I think in Bush’s second term, the cost of this solidity really became apparent as the Republican vision narrowed on issues like Social Security and Terri Schiavo. And they pursued an agenda that tended to drive away the center of the country with results that we saw in the 2006 election.
RUSSERT: Michael Gerson, let me stay on religion.
I had a discussion up at Boston College one time with Democrats, Republicans. And I said, is it that the Republicans have been too focused on the Ten Commandments and not enough on the Sermon on the Mount? And the Democrats have been too focused on the Sermon on the Mount to the exclusion of the Ten Commandments?
Is there something there?
GERSON: I do think there’s something there. I often—you know, I analyze some conservative history in this.
There’s a form of conservatism that is a preference for settled habits, values, traditions, other things. Religion has also been a challenge to that type of conservatism if you look in our history—abolition, you know, reform—various reform movements of the 19th century. OK?
There’s always—there’s always been a kind of tension between the religious vision of human rights—universal human rights and dignity and a conservative emphasis on tradition, habit, the past. For me, that’s a healthy tension. I think it’s something that actually improves the coalition in many ways, because it challenges key elements of this.
You know, some of the heroes in the book are not—are people like William Wilberforce, who was a British conservative who challenged his own party on the economic practice of slavery, which was very, very (INAUDIBLE) in the British empire. And, you know, we need some of that on issues today as well.
So I think religion, you know, instead of playing a repressive role in American history, has often played the role of creating a class of dissidents with a vision of human rights and dignity that challenge both parties, both ideologies. You know, to live up to American ideals.
I think that that’s still true on issues like race and poverty and disease and development and other things. So, you know, that’s one of the arguments of the book, is the role that religion can play in this, calling to attention to the Sermon on the Mount in times when people are contented with the status quo.
BROWNSTEIN: You know, I may have to think of that for the paperback. Of all the fault lines in American life that I talk about, the line between the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount actually is a good one.
Can I just jump back to something Mike said a while ago? He talked about the hopeful sign he saw and the degree to which evangelical concerns and traditional somewhat—somewhat traditional Democratic concerns were coming together on foreign policy.
You know, I see another hopeful sign. And obviously this is—look, this polarization, this intense division did not begin with President Bush, it won’t disappear when he leaves office. It didn’t begin with Bill Clinton, it won’t—you know, it’s not just a question of changing leaders. There are forces that move us in this direction.
But you know, I had been struck in the last year or so at the proliferation of these odd couple coalitions on domestic policy, whether it’s Andy Stern and the Service Employees International Union getting together with the businesses roundtable, the AARP, the National Federation of Independent Business, groups that have been ideologically opposed working together on health care, whether it’s the coalition working on global warming that includes some of the leading environmentalists, as well as the auto companies and the oil companies and, you know, other major corporations—on immigration there were attempts to come together. You know, it is almost as if the private sector, I think, is moving to try to create the conditions for consensus.
In the private sectors, I include the civic sector as well—out of the failure of the public sector to fulfill its historic role of being the crucible of that consensus. And, you know, I say it in the book. It’s almost as if we’re outsourcing the traditional job of the public sector to—yes, there disagreement in society. There’s always going to be disagreement in society. But the job of the public sector, of the most farsighted leaders of both parties, historically, has been to find a way to bound that disagreement and to find some consensus around which we can move forward together.
And now we’re seeing more and more efforts outside of the political system. And I think a president who tried to tap into that would find a very positive response.
RUSSERT: You take energy independence. It’s one issue that Republicans and Democrats will say, you know, you’re right, we can’t be living in a world where we rely on Iran or Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or Russia for our energy.
And why couldn’t a president of either party bring in the environmentalists, bring in the auto companies, bring in the labor unions and sit down and say we’ve got to get this done? In the next 10 years, this is what we have to achieve in terms of our energy independence?
It just doesn’t seem to happen.
GERSON: I actually strongly agree with that. I think on energy in particular, because of urgent foreign policy issues, combining with increasingly urgent environmental issues, there should be common ground on that. You know, I think you could have conservative and free market approaches to some of those questions—cap and trade that would encourage the technology to kind of trap carbon and allow us to produce more energy with coal. I think that there is a lot of common ground there.
I actually see it on health care, too. I think that there may be eventuality he grand compromise by which we have universal access to health insurance, subsidized health insurance by the government, you know, along with a mandate that would make it essentially a right, but do it through the private system for universal ownership of private health insurance.
RUSSERT: Which is what Massachusetts did.
GERSON: A single-payer system. That should be appeal to both sides naturally.
BROWNSTEIN: Well, it’s hard though. I mean, look, I would agree. I mean, I think when you look across the issues—energy, global warming, immigration, entitlements, health care—that the key to me on all of these issues is the same. A president who is willing to ask for sacrifice from his or her own coalition will own the moral and political capital to ask it from the other coalition.
A president who says we are going to use all the tools available to us as a society, we are both going to increase—I may not want to increase production, “I,” a Democratic president, domestic oil production, but, yes, I am going to do that because I understand there are important interests in society who believe that is part of the answer. And in return...
RUSSERT: Or look at nuclear power.
BROWNSTEIN: Or look at nuclear power. And in return, I am going to ask them to accept higher fuel economy standards, renewable portfolios standard for utilities.
You could apply this across the board. And I do think that, you know, it is not simple because the parties, as I say, have sorted out in a way—if you look at California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger is pursuing a centrist compromise on health care very much like Massachusetts, not a single Republican in the state legislature is willing to vote for it. And incredibly, organized labor in the state is now mobilizing against it.
Any president committed to peace will earn the scars to prove it. But that doesn’t mean there is not still a persuadable senator in the county that would be willing to support—a president takes the risk, really. I think it’s a risk of breaking out of this polarized politics.
RUSSERT: Another quick break.
We’re talking to Ron Brownstein and Michael Gerson.
We’ll be right back.
RUSSERT: “The Second Civil War” by Ron Brownstein, “Heroic Conservatism” by Michael Gerson. They are the books and the authors are here.
Having read both books and the divisions in our country, I think the media has a role in all of this, and an interesting one and an important one. When you look at the political process, we have all these safe congressional seats. And Ron, you talk about this in your book as well, how they’ve been gerrymandered so that if you’re a Republican, you’re guaranteed a reelection, Democrat reelection.
There’s no incentive to reach across the aisle. You’re always worried about a primary from your left if you’re a Democrat, from your right if you’re a Republican. You have a litmus test of ideological issues where you get your money from. And that’s how you govern.
The media now, with the explosion of 24/7 cable, talk radio, and the blogs, reward that. They want someone from the far left and the far right to come on like caged animals and go at each other.
Is that fair?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, first of all, even the traditional media, the traditional—the dread mainstream media, tends to focus more on conflict than consensus. I often describe the press corps as similar to the creature in “Predator,” an Arnold Schwarzenegger, describe it as drawn to heat and conflict. But we’re the same way.
We’re more likely to focus on the point of disagreement than the areas where there is the potential for agreement. But that has now been supplemented by the emergence or the resurgence, really, of overtly partisan media, as you describe. I think in many ways the period we’re living in is a return to the kind of politics at the turn of the 20th century, and this is certainly one of them, and when we had media that was very clearly identified with one party or the other.
And all of the factors that you describe, there now is a transmission belt on each side. More developed on the conservative side, but exists—but is developing on the Democratic and liberal side that exists to constantly funnel outrage to the base. And the next—if you are a president that is committed in any way in trying to bridge these divides, you can bet that the media from the other side is not going to be focusing on your conciliatory gestures. They’re going to be focusing on whatever you do that is going to be most provocative to the base of the other side.
So it is a real challenge. I mean, the emergence of this media, to some extent, is a reflection—is a reflection of the period we’re in. And it shows to some extent, Tim, I think, the good side of it, which is that people are engaged. They care about the outcome.
They’re voting. They’re contributing. They’re volunteering. They’re going on to these Web sites and creating very vibrant communities.
I don’t begrudge any of that. I think the challenge though is for political leadership to understand there is a point at which all of that contention has to be hammered into something we all can live with, or else we’re going to be immobilized.
GERSON: I think the other element that you mentioned was the elevation of caricature in the media, which I think is an important element of this too. You saw it just recently with Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Giuliani.
That’s a case where Pat Robertson has not exercised broad influence in the evangelical movement for quite some time. His organization is a shadow of its former self. But the media loves images like that because they fit their preconceptions and expectations, when, in fact, evangelicalism in America looks quite different from that approach.
So I agree. I think that it’s a major problem.
I think it’s also been complicated because the—because of the bitterness of the Internet, which even beyond anything you see in the traditional media has encouraged really people’s worst instincts of anger. When they—and...
BROWNSTEIN: Talk radio isn’t a sedative either.
GERSON: Well, now that’s true, but it’s encouraged a mode of discourse...
GERSON: ... that does not look for common ground. And I think those are serious structural problems.
The reality though is, I think, is that Americans are skeptical of leadership, of aspirational leadership, until they’re led. They’re skeptical of politics. Until politics means something.
And so it does put a premium on the emergence of leaders who would have that element to their message. I don’t see too much of it right now, to be honest, in either party.
RUSSERT: But President Bush tried to lead the Republican Party on immigration. And in the end, they didn’t want to follow.
GERSON: No, I agree with that. I think that that was not just a bad decision, it was a politically suicidal decision.
You talk about the homogeneity of the Republican Party. I do not believe the Republican Party can win national elections as—if it’s perceived as a (INAUDIBLE) party, given the demographic trends and other things. So that is—immigration has been, you know, for me, a disillusioning moment in many ways.
It’s one of the things that attracted me to George Bush. During the South Carolina primary, when he ran for president of the United States, he got a hostile question about—about immigration. He answered it by saying, you know, family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande. These are people that want to feed their family.
That is the kind of politics I think you’re talking about.
BROWNSTEIN: I was there. And I think the immigration story—I want to get to the nuance of it, that I think makes the point of how ultimately a strategy that focuses overwhelmingly on unifying your own party as the principal goal is too narrow and fails, because there was a point where George Bush could have passed immigration reform.
In 2006, there were 62 votes in the Senate and there was a clear majority in the House for a comprehensive plan that had all the elements that he wanted. But there was not a majority of the majority in the House. There was not a majority of Republicans. And under this very kind of narrow vision of Denny Hastert, the Hastert rule, he would not bring the bill to the floor that did not have a majority of Republicans.
And George Bush blinked in 2006. He would not confront Hastert, even though there was a clear majority in the House and a chance to have a signing ceremony. He was not willing to confront his base for a bill that I think everyone agreed would have had a majority of votes in both chambers.
GERSON: I think there was often too much deference to congressional leadership. On Social Security, for example, they were always allowed to draw up the plan which didn’t include a lot of elements that I would have liked to have seen on immigration, on the faith-based initiative, for which there was no interest whatsoever.
GERSON: So I think there was some of that dynamic. I don’t think it’s a reflection on the president’s instincts, but really a strategic question of deference to the Congress.
RUSSERT: Another quick break. We’ll be right back after this.
RUSSERT: And we’re back talking to Ron Brownstein, “The Second Civil War.” Michael Gerson, “Heroic Conservatism.”
Ron, in your book, Tom DeLay says partisanship is not a symptom of democracy’s weakness but of its strength.
BROWNSTEIN: You know, as I say in the book, George Washington used his farewell address to warn about entangling alliances. Dwight Eisenhower, the military industrial complex. Tom DeLay warns us of too much—too much cooperation between the parties.
Look, this is the era we live. And obviously there is—look, there is a place for true believers.
Richard Hofstetter, the great, late political historian, talked about the role of third parties in bringing neglected grievances to the surface. Without true believers of left and right, we could mistake—drift for consensus. I mean, there are a lot of issues we wouldn’t deal with.
We wouldn’t deal with the long-term class of entitlements. There is a place for that.
But ultimately, within political leadership I believe the best that we have seen have a more elastic and inclusive view of how you harmonize the diverse interests in a society like this. And DeLay is very much a creature of his time.
I mean, I talk in the book about the rise of Newt Gingrich and in the ‘80s explicitly rejecting the ethos of the age of bargaining. I believe the first figure to see polarization as a positive political good.
DeLay very much reflects that. There are a lot of people in both parties who reflect that at this point. And, you know, when you’re in the opposition, perhaps, you know, intense resistance is sometimes called for.
The question is, who can develop a positive governing strategy? And I think that is the party that is ultimately going to thrive.
RUSSERT: When Bill Clinton was elected president, there were 50 pages on the World Wide Web. Fifty. Now five billion, I think, by the latest count.
Michael, Ron has a theory that after the impeachment of Bill Clinton, we have a generation of Internet pamphleteers of both parties who have grown up in a war zone. And it makes it very, very hard for either of the parties to move to the center and find common ground.
GERSON: No, I completely agree with that. You saw it in John Tower. You saw it with Bill Clinton. You’ve seen it in the aftermath of Iraq. It’s a “take no prisoner” politics.
But I make a slightly different argument that’s very consistent with yours, which is that there are a group of people in every generation that asks the question, what are the great uniting moral causes of our time? Whether it’s abolition or civil rights or other things. And that, in my view, is going to find expression within the conservative movement and the Republican coalition, or it’s going to find expressions somewhere else.
And I believe both parties need to respect it and appeal to it, but I think a specific argument, the Republicans are in a backlash mode to a lot of these ideas of a very narrow limit—vision of—you know, an anti-government vision influenced by libertarian ideals. Very little of what I would call the conservatism of the common good, of trying to appeal beyond your normal coalition.
And that—you know, that’s an argument worth making right now in American politics, it seems to me. Both parties need it, but I particularly address the Republican coalition.
RUSSERT: Ron, you’re a close observer of this presidential race. Is there anybody who is positioned to be elected president who would be in a position to actually govern, to have the capacity to find common ground?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, first of all, I think it’s going to be very difficult for any candidate to truly change this dynamic as a candidate. As a candidate, it’s all perspective. You’re promising people you’re going to be something different.
George Bush said he was a different kind of Republican. Not many Democrats believe that now.
Bill Clinton said he was a different kind of Democrat. And that, certainly, in the first half of his presidency, not many Republicans did that.
So I think the opportunity though—the opportunity is there once you’re elected. And I do think there are a number of candidates who are talking about these themes.
Barack Obama has probably been the most explicit when he says correctly, I believe, that change in the magnitude we need cannot be achieved on a 50 plus one majority. He said that on a prominent Sunday talk show recently.
I think Hillary Clinton is an interesting example because her intellectual instinct is toward finding common ground. Her gut instinct is more of sort of a political counterpuncher and fighter. And I think those two would war if she was president.
I think John McCain has instincts in this direction.
I think Giuliani is somewhat similar to Hillary Clinton in that he is drawn on some fronts toward policies that have the potential to unite the country, but his personal instinct toward politics is very combative. And those two instincts would somewhat war if he was in office.
GERSON: If I were a Democrat, I’d be very interested in Obama. I think his message both on religion and inclusion are very, very interesting. I think he’s an excellent speaker as well. But he’s getting some criticism from Democrats because of this. He’s too much like Adlai Stevenson, or, you know, ineffectual Democrats of the past, when, in fact, I think this is a perfectly, you know, acceptable kind of message in politics.
And I like Huckabee’s approach on some of this. He’s an economic...
RUSSERT: Former governor of Arkansas.
GERSON: Right, exactly. He loves to appeal broadly to kind of lower middle class and not a normal Republican audience.
So these things aren’t unknown, they’re just not predominant right now.
BROWNSTEIN: The opportunity is there for the next president. A reflection of the world we live in though, John Edwards attacks Barack Obama for saying that while he would reduce the influence of the insurance industry, he would give them a voice in the negotiation of health care. Edwards says you can’t talk to them, you have to beat them.
That is a rising view in both parties and one that ultimately is destructive.
RUSSERT: To be continued.
“The Second Civil War,” Ron Brownstein. “Heroic Conservatism,” Michael Gerson.
Thank you very much for a civil conversation on politics and religion. Who would have thought at one table?
And we’ll see you next weekend.
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